Early Doors

Barcelona are Federer – where’s Djokovic?

Early Doors

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Is it just Early Doors that felt its attention drifting as Barcelona pulped Milan last night?

There is only so much pleasure you can take from watching somebody push at an open door.

The first leg was compelling simply because of Milan's stubborn defiance. Once it became clear their composure and concentration had been lost in transit to the Camp Nou, anti-climax ensued.

Of course, there are people who simply sat back and enjoyed a fine exhibition of football from the best team on the planet.

Quite frankly, ED doesn't get those people.

The tiki taka era seems to have spawned many fans who simply enjoy watching Barcelona for their artistic merit.

The scoreline is largely immaterial (as long as good triumphs evil and Pep's boys prevail) - it is like 90 minutes spent staring at a particularly nice still life. Albeit one in which the fruit bowl has lots of pretty patterns on it.

That's not to belittle those pretty patterns. Those pretty patterns have won Barca three Liga titles and two Champions Leagues in three years; they won Spain a World Cup and European Championship.

But that's the point - it's about winning things. Not the intrinsic beauty of men repeatedly kicking a ball a short distance to each other.

If your players are good enough, tiki taka is a dazzlingly effective way of playing football.

However, there is a pervading sense that it holds some sort of moral high ground.

ED has lost count of the number of times it has heard somebody say Swansea 'play the right way' - meaning they employ a short-passing style that seems to have morphed from a tactical decision into a religion.

Despite the alleged moral superiority of possession football, the evidence that it brings results is thin.

This recent blog post from The Power of Goals does a superb job of puncturing the myth of possession as a meaningful stat.

On a more anecdotal (and therefore more understandable to the simple likes of ED) level, it took Stoke 116 'attempts' to record more than 50 per cent possession in a Premier League game - they finally broke their duck in a 1-1 draw at Norwich last August.

Despite being a good football team, Stoke are frowned upon by the likes of Arsene Wenger, who cannot see football beyond the next 10-yard triangle.

Barcelona are in the happy position of being able to play tiki taka and do it so well that they nearly always win.

Yet that does not mean every match they play is an earth-shattering spectacle.

Early Doors is going to do one of its tenuous analogies now.

Let us hope we are where tennis was in 2007. Back then, Roger Federer was still the undisputed king, but Rafa Nadal had started making life uncomfortable for him.

Federer got the better of his rival in a classic Wimbledon final and claimed three Grand Slams that year, though he had not yet won the French Open.

Thereafter, one of sport's most compelling rivalries went into overdrive, before the arrival of Novak Djokovic pushed the sport into Golden Age territory.

Barcelona, of course, are Federer. Stylish, successful and universally admired, but just a little too eager to admire the beauty of their own game and slow to acknowledge the merits of other approaches.

Real Madrid are Nadal, boasting drive and tenacity to go with a talent that is sometimes overshadowed by their rival's natural brilliance.

We await a Djokovic - a team obsessed only with winning, blessed with extraordinary defence and mental toughness. Manchester City look the likeliest candidates, if only they can stop bickering.

The point is this. Until Nadal arrived, watching Federer was a bit like a firework display; full of oohs and aahs of appreciation, but short on genuine drama. It was a passive experience, albeit a very pleasant one.

The five-set epics between Nadal, Federer and Djokovic (and sometimes Andy Murray) are completely different, dragging the observer through a gamut of emotions.

They feature triumph, tragedy, gut-wrenching uncertainty and those special moments when you see top athletes pushing each other to new heights of brilliance in their battle for supremacy.

Now that is great sport.

Barcelona-Milan was not that. It was Federer taking care of business against Lleyton Hewitt. It might have gone to four sets, but the result was never in serious doubt and by the end it was as one-sided as a Chinese election.

Early Doors does not watch football for its aesthetic virtues or for intellectual stimulation. It watches it in the hope of seeing two well-matched teams fighting to the last. Hopefully they will play some nice stuff along the way, but the most important thing is the battle.

If we are lucky, football is where tennis was in 2007. Barcelona are a great team. All they need now is an equally great rival (or maybe two) to create a genuinely transcendent spectacle.

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Barca don't need these things. They are the best team in the world. I start to understand Jose Mourinho when he talks about what happens when you come here to play against them. Now I have seen it first hand and I understand it more and more." Zlatan Ibrahimovic rages against the award of two penalties at the Camp Nou.

"Ibrahimovic wants to make friends with Mourinho." Pep Guardiola's response.

FOREIGN VIEW: Porto have been fined 20,000 euros (£16,600) after their fans were found guilty of aiming racist abuse at Manchester City's Italian forward Mario Balotelli.

City complained about Balotelli's treatment after their 2-1 win away to the Portuguese side in the Europa League on February 16 in the round of 32.

"The UEFA Control and Disciplinary Body has imposed a fine of 20,000 euros on FC Porto for racist conduct of their supporters..." said a UEFA statement published on City's website.

Porto, who have three days to appeal, said at the time they were surprised about the complaint and nothing abnormal had happened during the game.

A spokesman said chants from Porto and City fans in support of their respective players Hulk and Sergio 'Kun' Aguero could have been mistaken for other sounds.

The Portuguese club said they had no previous record of racism and were proud to field a multi-racial team.

However, Porto fans told Reuters they had briefly heard monkey chants from a part of the stadium after a foul by Balotelli.

Porto later complained about an 'offensive' chant from City fans, in which they sang "You're not incredible" at Hulk.

COMING UP: More Champions League action. Chelsea v Benfica and Real Madrid v APOEL Nicosia at 19:45. Plus the latest musings of Jim White and Andy Mitten.

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